Today I wrote my first “bad” review. Not bad in the way it was written, but bad in that it dealt with what was ultimately a negative experience. While it’s true that I’ve written reviews on places that were average, and I’ve written reviews that on a whole have been critical, I’ve never written a properly “bad” review before. I’ve eaten out a lot over the years and there have been a combination of highs and lows however last night I my wife and I had, what we both agreed, was the worst meal we had eaten since moving to Melbourne in January 2012.
Generally speaking, and as regular readers of my blog can attest to, my restaurant reviews are positive pieces. There are several reasons for this:
- I do my research and eat at places that look interesting to me and have what I would consider to be a high potential to be good
- I listen to others in the Melbourne food scene who’s opinion I respect
- I eat out approximately once a week at mixture of new spots and old favourites. I spend my hard earned cash when I eat out so I want to make sure that, as far as it is practicable, I’m going to have a meal that I enjoy.
When I do have an experience which isn’t something that I particularly enjoyed, I will tend to hold off on writing anything and, at the end of the year, will write a relatively neutral paragraph or two in one of my “places I ate at but didn’t review” pieces.
Many who criticise online food reviewers focus on the fact that there are a lot of negative reviews out there on platforms such as Urbanspoon, Yelp and Trip Advisor. My article is not about these “reviews” and personally speaking I don’t think that you should put too much weight on anything that you read on those sites. A sentence or two of uncontextualised gushing praise or nasty putdowns wastes everyone’s time.
What I am talking about are food blogs. There has been much said on the ethics of food bloggers of late, however in my experience the majority of reputable food bloggers that I’ve encountered are quite ethical. One of the ethical dilemmas that many food bloggers face is that which is the subject of this blog post – what do I do when I have a bad experience at a restaurant?
Most reputable bloggers aren’t full of self importance, and aren’t in it for the freebies or the “fame”. Most that I’ve met do it because they love food and enjoy talking about it. Personally, one of the reasons that I started writing about food was because I was known as the “food guy” amongst my friends back in Perth and in London. Whenever somebody wanted to know where they should go to eat, they’d ask me and I was always more than happy to help. It brings me genuine pleasure when somebody tells me about a great meal that they enjoyed based on one of my recommendations. When I arrived in Melbourne, I thought to myself, I like writing about food, I like taking photos and I’m just as capable as any of the other bloggers out there that I follow, why don’t I start writing about food too? So I did.
I know that in the overall scheme of things, my blog is just a small piece of the pie. There are a lot of Melbourne food bloggers out there, a lot of opinions and a lot to read. Add to the mix your traditional media like The Age and popular websites such as Broadsheet and it’s hard to get your voice heard. I’m not ignorant as to my place in the overall scheme of things, and I’m happy to do what I do, knowing that there are people out their who respect what I have to say, regardless of what that number might be.
Based on discussions that I’ve had with other food bloggers, it is clear that many feel the same way. Most of us don’t have designs on becoming the country’s pre-eminent food writers. We have day jobs and many other hobbies, the blog of which is just one. Having said that, food bloggers are very aware that there are people reading what they write and that there are people who give weight to what they say. For this reason, the issue of writing a bad review is one that many bloggers struggle with, as evidenced by discussion on the topic at 2013’s Eat Drink Blog conference that I attended in Perth.
Many bloggers feel that they have a responsibility when they write a restaurant review. I know that the owners have put a lot of their time and money into this ventures, I know that in many cases restaurateurs have put a lot more on the line to open up a venue that they are passionate about. Who am I to write something negative about a place? If somebody doesn’t visit because of what I have written what if it contributes to them going bust? What if the owners are really nice people and what I have written contributes, in its own little way to them losing everything? Over-dramatic perhaps, as in the end the majority of food bloggers are, as discussed earlier, small fry. In any case these are the sorts of things that go through many blogger’s minds when contemplating writing a bad review.
Countering these thoughts are things that bring us back to why we started blogging in the first place. I want people to enjoy good meals, so surely I owe it to my readers to bring it to their attention when I don’t have a good meal. The restaurant scene in Melbourne in particular is very competitive and there are a lot of great places to eat – if I can save somebody from having a bad meal, surely I should? Many people don’t eat out as often as I do, and are in much tighter financial situations – their occasional meal out is something that they save up for and anticipate for a while, so if I can play a part in making sure that the meal that they have is an enjoyable one, shouldn’t I?
After I posted my review on the Internet, there was quite a bit of discussion on Twitter amongst bloggers, eaters and industry folk who had certain things to say on the topic. There were 2 distinct points to come out of this.
- Should I write a bad review?
- If yes to point 1, how should I write a bad reviews.
Some of Tweets of note included:
— Ed Charles (@tomatom) March 29, 2014
— rantingrestaurateur (@RestaurantsRant) March 29, 2014
— shαrkч™ (@Shark4ChipDrink) March 29, 2014
— James Saretta (@JamesSaretta) March 29, 2014
— JeanBean (@Honeybirdtravel) March 29, 2014
— Millie (@Millietheowl) March 29, 2014
— MelbourneKy (@MelbourneKy) March 29, 2014
Taking into account my own ideas on the subject, and those of several others as gleaned of Twitter and other resources (see relevant articles from Salon, BloombergView and The Huffington Post about negative book reviews) there is a common theme, being that it’s important to write bad reviews, but equally important to do it in the right way. Common things to take into account when writing a bad review include:
- Talk to the restaurateur and include their response if appropriate.
- There might be a good reason for the bad experience that you had. Things might not be as they appeared on the surface. See what they have to say and you might just change your mind, or at least be able to qualify some of what you have written.
- Ask yourself why you are writing the review.
- Is it to inform, or do you have some other motive?
- Don’t be mean.
- Let the facts do the talking, try not to use emotive or negative language.
- Don’t rant.
- Build a coherent argument. Let the reader know exactly what it is that you didn’t like and why you didn’t like it.
- Provide context.
- Was there something else that should be mentioned that could influence how the reader interprets what you have written? Will what you have written be misconstrued without this context?
- Be balanced.
- No matter how bad the experience there’s always at lease one positive to be found. The skill of a good writer is to find this positive.
- Have humility.
- See that high horse over there? Get off it. In the overall scheme of things, you and your review are nothing.
- Be honest.
Writing a bad review is not an easy thing to do, but I think that bad reviews are important and have their place. What would be the point in there being reviews if they were all positive? As writers, I think that keeping the above 9 points in mind when writing a review will ensure that any bad reviews we do write will serve a constructive purpose as one of the many reviews on the particular restaurant, and will help diners to make an educated opinion as to whether or not they dine at a given venue – at the end of the day it’s their choice.
This is a really interesting topic, and I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below. Do you agree or disagree with what I’ve said above? Do you have any insight of your own to add?